So, how many times have you been staring at the shelf at the grocery store and start questioning your life decisions? lol PLUS, how can you actually get oil from sunflowers and avocados?! WHICH OIL IS THE OIL FOR ME?!?! It can definitely be confusing if you don't know the secret password...smoke point! Let's explore!
First, what are cooking oils? Cooking oils are the fat extracted from plant and animal sources. Many of the plant oils come from seeds and nuts. If you've ever seen the size of a sunflower, that should explain why it's so expensive. That's typically one reason why some oils cost more than others. Takes far more sesame seeds to get a pint of oil than olive pits. Some of the more well known plant based oils are derived from Olives, Coconuts, Sesame Seeds, Flax Seeds, Palm Fruits, Peanut Oil, Grapeseed Oil, Safflower Oil, Sunflower Oil and Avocado Oil. There are far more oils than this derived from nuts, seeds and other fruits, however, many of these are what's called finishing oils. I'll explain more about these later. So how do they get these oils? Traditionally, they're pressed. Eventually, the high pressure results in "expressed" oil. There are several versions that result from this pressing. 1st press or Extra Virgin, 2nd press, virgin or Light and 3rd press or Pomace.
So, what IS a smoke point and why does it matter so much?! Well you have essentially 2 important temperatures in your oil, that's the cook temp, when it's ready to use, and the smoke point, which is when the oil begins to break down. There are signs for both. When the oil is ready to cook with, it kind of shimmers or forms a ripple effect. Think of a walk on the beach near the shoreline. After the water washes up around you and recedes, you'll notice a slight rippling effect on the surface of the water. Thats the same look the oil will have when it's ready to cook. On the other hand...when an oil reaches it's smoke point...well...it smokes...This means the oil is breaking down. Cooking in oil beyond it's smoke point, can result in possible combustion and your food gains a very bitter flavor. So, with ALL these oils out there, which one and which kind are the best for cooking Chef?! Well, I'm glad you asked. Extra Virgin oils tend to have a stronger flavor because they traditionally carry a lot of the pulp from whatever was pressed. Though it DOES increase the flavor, it also lowers the smoke point as all of that pulp has a REALLY low burn point. So much so, that it's ill-advised to cook with these oils as even when your stove is on low as it's still beyond the smoke point of MOST extra virgin oils. Since the flavor is so high though, these tend to be GREAT for finishing oils! Think of that piece of bread you get at your favorite Italian restaurant accompanied with that tray of oil. Yeeaaah, THAT bread...the warm bread that makes you feel justified being late for work cause you just needed ONE MORE BASKET...sorry, maybe that's just MY reality lol Anyway, that oil tends to be extra virgin oil.
The second press tends to have a lighter flavor because the bulk of the pulp tends to be in the first press. The lack of pulp does weaken the flavor in comparison, but though lighter, it also provides the upside of a higher smoke point. Now, these flavors aren't neutral, but they're so minimal that most of the time you won't notice their presence. Many of the oils you run into in the store are either 1st press of second press. Every now and then, however, we run into the 3rd press. Many times, by the 3rd press, there's barely any oil left as you're pressing essentially the pulp...or pomace. Think of trying to squeeze the pulp from your juicer after juicing it 2 times already from the SAME PULP! This oil tends to have filler oils added to bulk it up since since so little is expressed. Often times heat is used to aid in further extraction. Chemicals are often added to extract or to stabilize the mixtures of bulk oils. These tend to be the lowest grade of oil. With all of these boutique, bulk and exotic oils on the shelf, how will we know the difference?
In some cases, you can look to the label to keep informed. In other cases, many times, the darker the oil, the more pulp it tends to have. Unfortunately, this specific industry isn't highly regulated in the US as it is in other countries. I say unfortunately, only because, as with many industries that don't have enforcement, people make their own rules and exceptions and call things names to deceive you into thinking it's something that it's not. Conversely, Europe has the EEC (European Commission Regulation) who enforces standards and defines classes of olive oil. With that in mind, the following table shows the difference between the various oils.
So, that's the long and short of Expressed Oils, but there are also oils derived from animals. First, lets discuss what animal products means...FAT! Yes that glorious word many chefs live in, in our Willy Wonka upside counter cultural world called the Kitchen. Our motto, Fat is Flavor, is as old as our flag. The fact is, animal fats were used to cook things way before expressed oils were, and for good reason. They have a have a high smoke point, inexpensive upcycling and when consumed in moderation can have some amazing nutritional value and great at making flavors pop.
Many times, these products will go by the names tallow, lard (typically pork), ghee (clarified butter), schmaltz (Chicken fat) and drum roll please.....BUTTER! In the current era they're considered trendy, mysterious and innovative to the home cook. Let's be honest, if we called them fat, the country at large would strike saying we're promoting unhealthy habits for our kids. The fact is, despite the smear campaign, animal products are some of the healthiest fats to cook with! So why are there SO many people making fat the villain?! Well that's due to a misinterpreted report back in the 50's and 60's. Scientists were trying to understand the reason for the rise in heart disease. Some researchers saw some initial data and publicized it neglecting the account of the entire study. The media picked it up and ran with it. The rest is history. Now, essentially anybody combating this information is considered counter cultural and dangerous in thinking. When the report came out, the vegetable oil industry capitalized and launched an extremely effective marketing campaign further demonizing animal fats while highlighting their alternative, Crisco. That's right, much of the push to make animal fats seem so unhealthy, was for us to embrace it's competitor. The fact is, even though many switched over the decades to a mostly plant based oil diet, heart disease is still the number 2 cause of death in the country. This begs the question, whats the truth about animal fat? Traditionally and presently, many cultures use animal fats in their cooking because of the saturated fats. YEP! The thing vegetable oils (Seed Oils) was built on, was the promise of the health benefits of lower saturated fats in relation to your heart. It is true that animal fats have a higher saturated fat content. On the title alone, I bet that words "saturated fat" brings chills down the average American health nuts spine. However, animal fats have a high amount of macronutrients, vitamin D and Omega 3 fatty acids, all things your body needs.
How can you tell the difference between an unsaturated or low saturated and saturated fat? Saturated fats tend to turn solid or opaque at room temperature. Unsaturated fats or lower saturated fats will stay transparent. So the more solid your the oil, the more saturated fats are mixed in. To clarify, there are some plant based oils that are also higher in saturated fats such as Coconut and Palm oils. The 3rd type of fat are trans fats, which are unsaturated fats. The natural trans fats are actually ok in moderation, while artificial ones are known to cause a lot of health issues. Natural trans fats occur in animal products from sheep to cattle or any grass grazing animal. Artificial trans fats are typically introduced into vegetable oils to keep them in a solid state and increase their shelf life, think margarine and Crisco. There's a book that explains this misunderstood ingredient far better than I ever could! Click here or the picture to find out more!
SO...How do you cook with animal fats?! Well first, we must understand how to even GET animal fats. Though there are a few ways, most commonly, animal fats are rendered by allowing animal proteins to slowly melt over medium to low heat and allow the fats to separate from the meat. They're then poured into a heat safe dish through a strainer and allowed to cool. They can be stored in a fridge or on the counter depending on the amount of saturated fat in them. HOWEVER, that old school coffee can with bacon fat is ok...but only for so long before it goes rancid (bad) lol. This is a great guide to help get you started with rendering. Now that we have our fat, how do we use it in? The great thing, MOST animal fats tend to be pretty odorless and flavorless, however, it is dependent on the season, diet of the animal and part of the animal the fat is rendered from. This makes them pretty flexible to use in a wide range of applications. In pastry, they're typically folded into flour to create flakier and crispier crusts. You can also rub them on pans before placing items into the oven to prevent them from sticking...the OG Crisco lol Many animal fats have a high smoke point, so they tend to be great for high heat cooking. If using for searing in savory applications, just like with plant based oils, heat the pan first, then add your fat.
There are 3 things that are the enemies of fats/oils. Water, salt and sunlight. This trio causes the oil to breakdown making it useless. So when storing them, make sure they're in a cool, dry place that's out of the sunlight in an airtight container. This also applies to when you purchase them. Try not to buy oils in clear bottles, rather closed metal cans/jugs. If you HAVE to buy glass, try to get the green glass bottles. The green is "SUPPOSED" to be better at shielding the oils from the uv rays of the sun.
Pro Clean-Up Tip:
A great way to clean up oil spills might surprise you. So, remember how we said salt is one of the enemies of oil? Well, salt breaks down the bonds in the oil. That means a great way to clean up oil is to cover it with salt. Doesn't matter what grind the salt is. Almost as soon as the salt touches the oil, it will begin to break down and be absorbed into the salt. You can then sweep it up and throw it away. Also gives your floor a nice light facial lol Now, this doesn't mean you shouldn't run a hot mop over the area afterwards though. This also works with cleaning oil out of pans. Pour salt over the bottom of the pan, then heat the pan over low heat for a few minutes. Then you can use towel, sponge or even a bread end lol to scrub with the salt underneath to loosen and remove it from the surface of the pan. The salt can be discarded later.
Now, though we covered a lot, this by no means covers all the bases with cooking with fats/oils, but it is the basics to know what it takes to get started.
Until next time, remember that fat is flavor. Enjoy in moderation and happy eating!